Hiring Staff “Who Don’t Look Like Me”

A commitment to multicultural leadership

When Roger Poupart gazes out at his congregation on Sunday mornings, he sees a kaleidoscope of faces that reflect the multiethnic San Antonio community surrounding Wayside Chapel. Brown, black, white. Young, old and everything in between.

It wasn’t always that way.

Before Roger arrived in 2006 to serve as senior pastor, Wayside Chapel (EFCA) served a predominantly white, upper-middle-class congregation. This in a majority-minority city in a majority-minority state. (Whites make up only 36 percent of the overall population in San Antonio.)

“I talked to the leadership while I was a candidate,” Roger recalls, “saying, ‘If we say we’re reaching into the community, I don’t see it in the pews.’”

And so began an intentional discussion with church leadership about barriers that were keeping Wayside Chapel from effectively representing its community as well as reaching it.

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2019, the population of minority children in the United States will outnumber white children. In fact, seven of the 15 most populous cities in America are now, like San Antonio, majority-minority centers.

As the demographics change in our communities, Roger firmly believes that our churches must reflect the diversity found there. The process of change should be both missional and intentional, and it needs to start from the top.

Weaving a new tapestry

Others in the EFCA agree. On the West Coast, Ron King oversees a church that is a rubber stamp of the community it serves: Bridges Community Church (EFCA) in Fremont, California. Located in the East Bay region of San Francisco, Fremont is home to a growing Asian population and the largest enclave of Afghans outside Afghanistan. A flip through the church staff directory reveals Asian, Asian Indian, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Filipino, Latino, Caucasian and African-American staff members.

Back in the 1980s, however, when Fremont was largely Caucasian, Bridges’ congregation was 95-percent Caucasian too. But the tapestry of the church began changing as its surrounding community changed. Now, Bridges’ congregation is less than 50-percent Caucasian.

As the community changed, Ron’s predecessor, Mark Wold, helped launch a variety of services in members’ heart languages—meeting separately but sharing in the overall vision and mission of Bridges as a singular church. Those services continue today.

Still, when Ron took the role of senior pastor in 2007, this multihued congregation was being led by an almost entirely white staff. Ron remembers communicating, “We’re not going to practice affirmative-action, but all things being equal, I’m going to intentionally hire other staff who don’t look like me. And we’re going to intentionally go after elders who don’t look like me. And intentionally put people in leadership roles who represent other cultures, so we can get the wealth of how God created the church.”

That commitment was driven not only by a desire to reflect the surrounding community, but also by two biblical convictions: to follow the model of the early church in Acts; and to make disciples of every ethnos, so that this church on Earth would be a reflection of the Church in heaven.

“We’ve discovered that as the diversity multiplies, joy in ministry multiplies,” Ron adds. “Good theology can be fun, can’t it?”

Wayside Chapel’s 11 a.m. contemporary service (at the top) includes a worship band, while its 9:15 a.m. service (here) is blended-traditional—mixing hymns and modern music, and sometimes featuring a choir and full orchestra. Courtesy Wayside Chapel (3)

It’s a choice

By deliberately reflecting the ethnicity of his congregation in his staff, Ron has seen his congregation come together as one body with many different faces and languages. “If the leadership and the people on the platform are not from multiple people groups, then your church won’t be. You have to be willing to be proactive there. You have to be intentional about how you champion the cause of a multiethnic, multicultural church."

On a recent Sunday, Ron’s lead worship team featured an African American, a Latino, two Chinese, two Caucasian and two Indian team leaders. “It would look pretty odd if it were just one people group,” he says, “especially if it were all Caucasian. It would feel uncomfortable.

“In Fremont, we say that the common languages spoken are ‘family’ and ‘education.’ Those are two high values for people around us. And so if we can speak those languages well, we are going to attract a lot of different people from a lot of different cultures.”

View from the pew

That same conviction is what inspired Roger Poupart, back in San Antonio, to incorporate multicultural language and music into his sermons and build a staff that reflects the community already walking through its church doors.

“Every week when you come in,” Roger says, “you see on the platform a person of color in an important leadership role.

“As we hired staff, we never compromised on what we were looking for, but we did intentionally look for non-Anglos. If there was a person of character, even if we needed to develop him or her more fully, we would hire that person.”

“It’s like a slow drip, reminding the congregation on a regular basis where we are going and why.”

Two key hires early on were worship leaders for both the contemporary and blended-traditional services. Both hires were of Hispanic decent.

“As I sit in the pews on a Sunday morning, as a 30-something Hispanic female,” says Victoria Loudermilk, “I feel a sense of connection and pride when I see someone of the same ethnicity as me, leading the worship team, teaching a women’s Bible study or leading in the children’s ministry.”

Roger’s approach differs from Ron’s in that Wayside Chapel has created a blended service rather than separate cultural services. They tried to produce a separate Spanish-speaking church within their church, but what people simply wanted was for the worship service to be more inclusive.

While the services are conducted in English, Roger says, "it's easy to include the Spanish heritage of the city by adding a greeting such as, 'Bienvenidos' when we say, 'Welcome' in English. And it can be done by using Spanish names in a sermon illustration, so that we talk about tamales along with barbecue, or say, 'Jose y Maria' instead of just, 'John and Betty.'

“It’s like a slow drip, reminding the congregation on a regular basis where we are going and why.”

Leading worship for the blended traditional service are Charles Gentles and Ivette Irizarry.

Deepening our outreach

Like Bridges, Wayside Chapel has lost some members since moving in this direction. “If you are an Anglo living in a predominately minority city,” Roger explains, “you start to feel like an outsider, and so you might want to go to a church that feels safe and comfortable. And that’s OK. We understand we can’t reach everybody or please everybody.”

Of course, some others were enthusiastic. Roger recalls when one of the elders, an older white gentleman, started crying. “When the unanimous vote of the board voted to go in this direction, he said, ‘I never thought that I would see this day in this church. I’m so excited.’”

As Wayside Chapel’s leadership and overall culture more deeply reflects the surrounding Hispanic community, the church’s outreach into that community deepens as well. To Roger, this is part of the church’s missional focus. For example, members started planning a church plant after an after-school Bible club began drawing children and their parents.

“Those are the stories we celebrate,” Roger says. “We remind the congregation: ‘We know it’s been hard and you’ve been patient with us and part of this, and we celebrate this as a church. We are now reaching people we would never have reached five years ago. And they are bringing their friends.’”

What’s unfolding in Fremont and San Antonio is happening more and more often as America’s larger cities increasingly become minority-majority. And so, as Ron and Roger have learned, ministry opportunities are also increasing, as the Church responds to the multihued threads of tapestry in her midst.

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